December 8, 2022 Brittney Griner and Russia-Ukraine news

By Kathleen Magramo, Sana Noor Haq, Eliza Mackintosh, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Maureen Chowdhury and Elise Hammond, CNN

Updated 0800 GMT (1600 HKT) December 9, 2022
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1:55 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Analysis: What Viktor Bout’s return to Russia says about Vladimir Putin

From CNN's Nick Paton Walsh

Viktor Bout arrives at a criminal court in Bangkok ,Thailand, in 2010.
Viktor Bout arrives at a criminal court in Bangkok ,Thailand, in 2010. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

On the surface,  US basketball star Brittney Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout are accused of ludicrously different crimes. Griner was sentenced to a Russian penal colony for possession of a single gram of cannabis oil. Bout is allegedly the most prolific arms dealer of the past decades, fueling conflicts in Africa and beyond – and more specifically being convicted in a US court of plotting to kill Americans.

But the circumstances and political pressure on both sides reversed this imbalance.

Griner gained a significance to Americans, forcing the Biden administration to negotiate with the Kremlin at the worst point of US-Russian relations since at least the end of the Cold War. Bout’s outsized importance to Russia — despite coming to be known as the “Merchant of Death” — has always been the bigger puzzle.

The fact that this exchange happened during the Russian invasion and brutalizing of Ukraine says two things.

First: Moscow and Washington are able to do business even as Russian bombs kill innocent Ukrainian civilians, and the US provides arms to Ukraine that are killing Russian soldiers, and that nuclear powers can work on other thorny issues while bullets are flying. This is a good thing for everyone on the planet. It means some cool heads prevail, and basic interests win out.

Second: It also shows some weakness on the side of Putin. At a time when he is hawkishly flaunting nuclear rhetoric against the West, he is also agreeing to high profile diplomatic deal to get back a figure of outsized, complex importance to Russia’s elite, the intelligence community, and national pride. He is not someone Moscow would – to paraphrase the ugly slogan of Russia’s invasion in which hundreds of soldiers’ bodies have remained strewn on the battlefield – “leave behind.” These are the very people that Putin wants to curry favor with now.

Yes, it is a win for Putin, but one that comes at the cost of exposing his weakness and his need to keep the military elite he relies upon content.

1:44 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Viktor Bout tells relatives he is back in Russia, according to state media 

From CNN's Uliana Pavlova

Viktor Bout, the US-traded Russian arms dealer, notified his wife and mother that he is in Russia during a phone call on Thursday, according to state broadcaster 24 and news agency TASS.

During the phone call, Bout reassured his relatives that he was fine. According to the broadcast, a special aircraft carrying Bout made a stop in the Russian city of Makhachkala for refueling.

How the exchange happened: The prisoner exchange was completed successfully at Abu Dhabi Airport on Thursday, the Russian foreign ministry said earlier Thursday.

The statement confirmed that Abu Dhabi received WNBA star Brittney Griner by private plane from Moscow after the Russian authorities released her, in conjunction with the reception of Bout on a private plane from Washington after the US authorities released him, in the presence of specialists from the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

1:27 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

German chancellor believes risk of Russia using nuclear weapons has decreased

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt in Berlin

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks to the media in Berlin on December 1.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks to the media in Berlin on December 1. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The risk of Russia using nuclear weapons in the war with Ukraine has lessened in response to international pressure, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a new interview.

The remarks, published Thursday by Germany's Funke media group, were later posted by Scholz on Twitter.

He was responding to a question about whether the threat of nuclear escalation had been averted. 

“For the time being, we have put a stop to it," Scholz said. For now, Russia has “stopped threatening to use nuclear weapons. In response to the international community marking a red line,” he continued.

Moscow voiced a different tone earlier this week: On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the threat of nuclear war is increasing and stopped short of pledging that Russia would not be the first to resort to nuclear weapons in a conflict.

“As for the idea that Russia wouldn’t use such weapons first under any circumstances, then it means we wouldn’t be able to be the second to use them either – because the possibility to do so in case of an attack on our territory would be very limited,” he said.

But Putin said he viewed the Russian nuclear arsenal primarily as a deterrent, rather than a provocation.

"We have a strategy … namely, as a defense, we consider weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons – it is all based around the so-called retaliatory strike,” he said. “That is, when we are struck, we strike in response.”

More from the interview: Scholz was also asked if Germany supports French President Emmanuel Macron's openness to providing security guarantees for Moscow in the case of peace negotiations. The chancellor said the priority was for Russia "to end the war immediately and withdraw its troops."

Scholz, who spoke to the Russian president last week, added that ''we have to talk to each other despite this terrible situation. So that Putin also hears our point of view again and again.''

CNN's Katharina Krebs contributed to this report.

1:19 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

US DOJ officials expressed frustration about prisoner swap when deal narrowed to 1-for-1, sources say

From CNN's Evan Perez

After months of behind-the-scenes discussions inside the US government about efforts to secure the release of Americans held in Russia, including Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, the outlines of a deal emerged in the past week, people briefed on the matter said. 

White House officials briefed government agencies that the Russians would only agree to swap convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout for WNBA player Brittney Griner. 

Justice Department officials, who were always opposed to releasing Bout, expressed frustration that an earlier deal that included Whelan had been narrowed to Griner.

One US official said law enforcement officials raised strenuous objections and were told the decision had been made. 

For law enforcement officials from the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which spent years and elaborate efforts to try to capture the convicted arms dealer, the release of Bout raised additional concerns about the precedent the deal could set. 

Viktor Bout looks out from inside a detention center in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2009.
Viktor Bout looks out from inside a detention center in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2009. (Apichart Weerawong/AP/File)

Bout, a former Soviet military officer, was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization. Bout has maintained he is innocent.

The publicity surrounding Griner — including celebrities posting criticism of the Biden White House on social media for not moving more quickly to secure her release — appeared to raise the Russian price for Griner’s release, law enforcement officials say.

That adds to concerns that the deal increases the likelihood that Russia, Iran and other countries could use the arrest of Americans to try to use the publicity to gain concessions the US otherwise wouldn’t give.

1:45 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Series of explosions in Russian-held Berdiansk reported on local social channels

From CNN's Julia Kesaieva

Local social media channels in the Russian-occupied city of Berdiansk reported loud explosions and a fire there Thursday morning, though Russian-appointed officials denied any attack.

Berdiansk is a city and port close to the Sea of Azov on Ukraine's southern coast and has been occupied by Russian forces since the early days of the conflict. Its port has previously been targeted by Ukrainian forces.

The explosions were confirmed by Viktoria Galitsyna, the Ukrainian-appointed head of the city's military administration, and Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol. Neither official is in Berdiansk.

Galitsyna said the explosions had occurred at a Russian-held airfield just north of the city. Andriushchenko said that, judging by what was being reported locally, something "very big detonates." The sound of the explosions had been heard in nearby villages, he said.

Moscow-backed leaders reject reports: The head of the Russian-appointed administration in Berdiansk, Aleksandr Saulenko, denied the reports.

Saulenko said Ukrainian "couch officials" who had fled to Zaporizhzhia were trying to "mislead users of social networks and messengers by spreading fake messages about explosions near the airport in our wonderful and quiet city."

"Trust only the official information of the Berdiansk (military administration), which is located in the city and has all the information first-hand," Saulenko said.

12:17 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Biden official: Russia made clear that Bout "was never a bargaining chip" for Whelan

John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, speaks to CNN's Kate Bolduan.
John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, speaks to CNN's Kate Bolduan. (CNN)

John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said the Biden administration will continue to work to get detained US citizen Paul Whelan back to the US after a release was secured for Brittney Griner on Thursday.

"Viktor Bout was never a bargaining chip for Mr. Whelan, and the Russians consistently made that clear. So I think we need to make that well-known. We will work as hard today and tomorrow and the next day to get Mr. Whelan home as we have been working since he's been in Russia wrongfully detained," Kirby told CNN's Kate Bolduan.

In July, CNN reported that the Biden administration offered to exchange Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year US prison sentence, as part of a potential deal to secure the release of Griner and Whelan, according to people briefed on the matter.

"It has to do with the nature of the sham charges against him, which were based on espionage," Kirby told CNN Thursday.

Paul Whelan is escorted inside of a court building in Moscow in 2019.
Paul Whelan is escorted inside of a court building in Moscow in 2019. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

Whelan, a US citizen and former Marine who was arrested in 2018 on espionage charges — which he has consistently and vehemently denied — is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia.

Kirby said that the US is “not back to square one” in its negotiations for Whelan's release, adding that "we are going to stay at those active discussions going forward."

In an exclusive call with CNN today, Whelan said he was happy that Griner was released but was “disappointed” the Biden administration had not done more to secure his release.

"The stoicism, the courage that he continues to display is not something that's lost on us here. And I can tell you, we worked really, really hard to get Mr. Whelan home. That was always the goal, to get both of them home, and we just couldn't make it work. This was the deal that we could get, and now was the moment we could get it. And we just felt the choice was either get one American home or get none and it was important to at least get one home and we're able to do that," Kirby said.   

Pressed on whether the world is more dangerous with Bout freed, Kirby said, “I can assure you … our focus on our national security interests is not going to change. ... And so with Mr. Bout being back on the street, we're gonna stay focused on making sure we can defend this country.”

CNN's Betsy Klein contributed reporting to this post.

11:33 a.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Ukraine says it continues to work with UN nuclear agency on demilitarizing Zaporizhzhia plant

From CNN Julia Kesaieva and Tim Lister

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant outside Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region of Russian-controlled Ukraine, on October 14.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant outside Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region of Russian-controlled Ukraine, on October 14. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

A top Ukrainian official said his government is working with the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency to create a security zone around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, after Russian officials appeared to cast doubt on the idea.

"Ukraine is moving step by step in full mutual understanding with the (International Atomic Energy Agency) to establish a security zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in Kyiv.

After a meeting with his Slovak counterpart, Kuleba said Ukraine remained in close contact with IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, who has been trying to broker a deal that would protect the plant and its surroundings from the conflict.

Kuleba said it was extremely difficult to assure the safety of Ukraine's nuclear power plants "without stopping Russian missile attacks on the territory of Ukraine."

And earlier Thursday, Ukraine's state-owned nuclear company Energoatom said Russian forces had deployed new weapons at the plant. 

It claimed Russia brought several "Grad" rocket launchers to the plant and situated them close to one of the reactors and the storage for spent nuclear fuel.

CNN is unable to confirm the allegation.

What Russia said: Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova appeared to cast doubt on the prospects for an agreement earlier this week.

She was asked: "The head of the IAEA R. Grossi said that experts are close to an acceptable agreement between Ukraine and Russia on the creation of a security zone around the Zaporizhzhia NPP (ZNPP). How would you comment on this statement? Is it possible to transfer control over ZNPP to a third party? Is the visit of the head of the IAEA R. Grossi to Russia expected?"

"There can be no talk of any withdrawal of the Zaporizhzhia NPP from Russian control or transfer of control over it to some 'third party,'" Zakharova responded. "The station is located on Russian territory and is fully controlled by Russia. We presume that only we are able to ensure the physical and nuclear safety of ZNPP."

Some background: Zaporizhzhia is one of the four Ukrainian regions annexed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in defiance of international law.

Putin also signed a decree federalizing the territory's nuclear plant, which has been occupied by Russian troops for months. Ukraine has said plant employees were forced to obtain Russian passports and sign employment contracts with Russia’s state nuclear energy agency. CNN has been unable to verify those allegations.

11:19 a.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Whelan says he knows Russia considers him to be in a different category than Griner

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

US officials have indicated that the Russians refused to release detained American Paul Whelan despite US efforts during negotiations.

Whelan said he was told that because the Russians have accused him of being a spy, “they've put me at a level higher than what they did with Trevor (Reed) and Brittney.”

“That raises a lot of concerns, because none of it is true. And they're trying to get out of United States, what the United States may not be able to provide, but this is basically political extortion,” he said.

He said he was aware that he was considered in a different category than Griner. “The Russians have always said so.”

“They've always considered me to be at a higher level than other criminals of my sort. And for whatever reason, I'm treated differently than another individual here from a Western country that's also on a charge of espionage. So even though we're both here for espionage, I'm treated much differently than he is, and my treatment is also much different than others held for espionage at other prisons,” Whelan said.
1:15 p.m. ET, December 8, 2022

Paul Whelan tells CNN he is "greatly disappointed" Biden administration hasn't done more to secure his release

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, on August 23, 2019
Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, on August 23, 2019 (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

Detained American Paul Whelan told CNN he is "greatly disappointed" the Biden administration has not done more to secure his release, meaning he's been left behind in Russia after fellow detained American Brittney Griner was freed on Thursday.

"I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred," he said in an exclusive phone call from the penal colony where is being held in a remote part of Russia. "I don't understand why I'm still sitting here."

Remember: Whelan, a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges he has vehemently denied.

He said he was happy that Griner was released but told CNN he "was led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon."

Now, he says he hopes that President Joe Biden and his administration “would do everything they could to get me home, regardless of the price they might have to pay at this point.”

If a message could go to Biden, it would be that "this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly," Whelan said. "My bags are packed. I'm ready to go home. I just need an airplane to come and get me."

Whelan also said he would like to speak to Biden directly, noting he had spoken to an administration official earlier in the day about the situation, but “I think that message really needs to go to people like the president, so they understand personally what I'm dealing with, and what we deal with in these foreign prisons and under these circumstances.”

“It’s quite obvious that I'm being held hostage,” he added.